Meir Dagan, recently retired as chief of the Mossad, wanted to reestablish the agency as a powerful deterrent to Israel’s enemies. With a string of daring operations, he succeeded.
Meir Dagan, the recently retired chief of the Mossad, is enjoying a festive season in the limelight of public recognition and adoration. He is making his farewell rounds after nearly 100 months—eight years and three months—of service clouded in darkness and secrecy. Dagan is the second-longest-serving director of Israel’s famous and feared foreign espionage agency. Only the legendary Isser Harel, who grabbed worldwide headlines when his agents caught the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, served a lengthier tenure, three years more than Dagan.
Wherever Dagan goes, he gets standing ovations for his achievements. Two Sundays ago, Israeli cabinet ministers clapped their hands in appreciation. Four days later, Mossad employees shed tears when Dagan said goodbye and drove his gray 4-wheel-drive car through the gates of Mossad headquarters. Israeli journalists and commentators known for their unflattering, bitter, and cynical approach to nearly everything and everyone—journalists who, it should also be said, rarely had a chance to talk to him, not to mention to know him—are going out of their way to praise him.
“He is one of the best directors, if not the best one, Mossad has had in our 60 years or so of existence,” Ilan Mizrahi, a veteran case officer, told me last week. Mizrahi, who served as former Mossad Director Ephraim Halevy’s deputy, found himself vying with Dagan in 2002 for the top job. He lost but now admits that “Meir restored Mossad’s reputation and brought the organization to new levels.”
Indeed, Dagan has enjoyed the respect and admiration of three prime ministers—quite a feat when one considers who they were: Ariel Sharon, who appointed him as head of the organization in September 2002; Ehud Olmert, who approved some of the most daring Mossad operations in Iran and Syria; and Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave Dagan the permission to send his “combatants”—as Mossad operatives who operate in enemy lands are known—on the controversial Dubai mission to kill the chief of rockets procurement for Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
All three heads of state showered Dagan with unprecedentedly generous budgets—a fact obvious to anyone who drives the main road to Haifa. From a distance, one can see the well-guarded Mossad compound, which now includes a half-dozen new offices—all constructed during Dagan’s era. More space means more case officers, more operatives, more researchers, more analysts, better computer and communication wizards, and also additional laboratories and technical gadgets.
But the new structures at Mossad headquarters are only the visible results of Dagan’s tenure. His hidden legacy lies in the hundreds of covert operations for which neither the Mossad nor the government of Israel will ever claim responsibility. They have resulted in the slowing of Iran’s nuclear program; in killing some of the most dangerous terrorists, including Imad Mughniyeh, who Dagan labeled “Hezbollah’s chief of staff”; and—most impressively—the intelligence-gathering that led to the destruction, in minutes, of Syria’s secret plutonium-producing nuclear reactor. This last effort has since become a test case of how precise intelligence data can be turned into a military result with strategic and historical implications.
Perhaps Dagan’s best-publicized triumph, the Syrian operation showcased his ability to respond quickly, forcefully, and creatively to new threats—and to squeeze maximum advantage out of his successes. Because of President Bashar Assad’s deception, for seven years no one—not Syrian ally Iran, not the CIA, neither French nor Israeli intelligence—had a clue about the North Korean-built reactor until April 2007, when Mossad agents discovered that Syria was within months of becoming a nuclear power. Dagan wasted little time. In September of that year, eight Israeli Air Force fighter planes and bombers destroyed the reactor. Israel never took responsibility for the attack. But Dagan’s people showed photos of the reactor before and after its destruction to the CIA, which presented the intelligence to Congress, creating the impression that the CIA was somehow involved in the operation.
Dagan didn’t stop there. One of the few Syrians who knew of the reactor was General Muhammad Sulliman, Assad’s point man to North Korea, Iran, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nearly a year after the destruction of the reactor, on a Friday night in August 2008, while entertaining some guests, the general was shot dead at his chalet in the prestigious Rimal al-Zahabieh seafront resort, 10 miles north of the Mediterranean port city of Tartous. A sniper, apparently aboard a ship in the sea, shot Sulliman in the head.
Meir Dagan was born Meir Hoberman in 1945 in Novosibirsk, in the Soviet Union, the son of Holocaust survivors who later immigrated to Israel and settled their family in the Bat Yam, a poor town south of Tel Aviv. His grandparents perished in the Nazi gas chambers. On the wall of his Mossad office, Dagan hung a photo of a Jew surrounded by German troops before being led to his death; the man in the photo is his grandfather. It was a constant reminder of Dagan’s mission in life, to defend Israel.
At 18, Dagan volunteered for the paratrooper brigade. In the early 1970s, Dagan, who by then had Hebraized his name from Hoberman, formed and commanded an undercover commando unit, known as Sayeret Rimon, whose task was to combat the increasing Palestinian insurgent violence in the occupied Gaza Strip. Wounded twice and decorated with military medals, Dagan rose to the rank of general and gained a reputation as a cunning planner of daring operations.
In 2002, Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister, appointed Dagan chief of Mossad. Dagan adored Sharon, who in turn treated the spy chief like his son; Sharon even gave the Mossad chief a nickname, “The Cruel,” to emphasize Dagan’s determination against Israel’s enemies and his self-confidence in the most dangerous situations. When Sharon fell into a coma in 2005, Dagan didn’t hide his feelings about having lost his father-figure.
And yet, even with this intensely close relationship to his boss, Dagan’s first two years as head of the Mossad were not all smooth sailing. According to a former Mossad official, Dagan sometimes behaved “like an elephant in a fine-china store.” Some old Mossad hands resented his managerial style, while others disliked the reforms and changes he made. But Dagan had Sharon’s support, and he was, by many accounts, fiercely determined to lead the organization his way.
“Every organization and bureaucracy and its people don’t like a new boss and the changes he brings with him,” Shabtai Shavit, the director of Mossad from 1989 to 1995, said in a recent interview. “Dagan managed with determination to change Mossad’s priorities and to focus on two major fronts: Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, and on the global war against Islamist terrorism inspired by Osama Bin laden and his al-Qaida.”
When I noted that previous Mossad chiefs—Shavit included—had more or less the same priorities, because the threats to Israel have been the same for nearly two decades, Shavit agreed. “But Dagan did it with unprecedented determination,” he said, “and succeeded to direct there all the organizational energy and effort, knowing how to distinguish between the hard core of the problems and the less important ones.”
Dagan concluded his term as Mossad chief by repeating publicly what he had said a few months ago in a secret session of the foreign affairs and security committee of the Knesset: Iran was still far from being capable of producing nuclear weapons, in part because a series of hardware malfunctions had put off its nuclear goal for several years. As a result, he concluded that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon before 2015—an estimate compatible with past and present U.S. national intelligence estimates.
This was frustrating for some, who argued that both the Mossad and Israel’s military intelligence, the largest and the most important agency in the intelligence community, have recently zigzagged in their Iran estimates—tailoring them to Israeli diplomatic interests by hyping the threat. Indeed, Israeli estimates have always been alarmist—in 1993, the two agencies estimated that Iran would have nuclear weapons by 1998, an estimate then changed to 2003 and then pushed forward to 2008 and later to 2011 and now 2015—because their very aim is to insert a sense of urgency into what is often otherwise plodding effort. But even beyond this, the truth is that these adjustments have been due primarily to the difficulties Iran has encountered in advancing its program, which are two-fold: Iran’s managerial and technical failure to fully master the difficult scientific and engineering process of uranium enrichment and weaponization; and the concerted international campaign to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
Blame for the first lies with Iran; but credit for the second goes to Dagan, who spearheaded the international campaign. Dagan met regularly with his Western intelligence counterparts to present them with raw intelligence in order convince them that their organizations must keep Iran from procuring equipment for the program in their respective countries. He had more face-to-face meetings with President George W. Bush, at which he highlighted the Iranian threat, than the head of any other foreign intelligence organization. And on top of mobilizing his counterparts and Western leaders, Dagan led the Mossad into covert action against Iran. His agents collaborated with the CIA, British MI6, German BND, the French DGSE, and other security services to send operatives into companies around the globe to penetrate Iranian procurement networks, gain their trust, and eventually sell them flawed components. Simultaneously, Israeli, German, and U.S. computer experts programmed unprecedented viruses and worms, which were installed on Iranian systems and paralyzed its computers and controlling panels. The result is that nearly half of Iran’s installed centrifuges at the Natanz plant came to halt, reducing Iran’s ability to produce fissile materials.
But the most daring effort attributed to the Mossad was the set of assassinations in 2010 of leading Iranian scientists in Tehran, who were killed in three separate incidents by bombs that exploded while they were driving to their offices. Though the targets were nominally teachers at various Iranian universities, all secretly worked for Iran’s nuclear military program. Two were killed, and one—Firudan Abbasi, a top expert of the weaponization group—was critically injured. Although the Mossad never takes credit for such assassination operations, the prevailing view around the globe, and especially in Iran, is that combatants from Mossad’s special-ops unit, Kidon (which means “bayonet”), were responsible for the clean job. All the combatants returned home safely. All the targets were eliminated or removed. No fingerprints were left.
And the same can be said about the January 2010 assassination of al-Mabhouh in Dubai—even though the operation resulted in what was perhaps the Mossad’s worst press ever. The conventional wisdom in Israel and abroad is that the Mossad botched the operation, because Dubai police deciphered and solved the mystery of al-Mabhoh’s death. This was the argument made by Dubai’s energetic police commissioner, General Dahi Khalfan, who blamed the Mossad for the operation and presented names and photos of roughly 20 supposed Mossad agents taken by security cameras both before and after the killing at various hotels and the local airport.
But there remains not one inch of evidence to support Khalfan’s claim. The target, al-Mabhouh, was killed by poison. No one was arrested, and all combatants returned home safely. To this day, no one really knows who the assassins were or where they are today. They used fabricated or borrowed passports and credit cards, so there’s little chance that they will be recognized. And a strong message of deterrence was sent to Hamas leadership, which suffered a major blow and is still in search of a suitable replacement for the experienced al-Mabhouh. They will eventually find one, but this is the nature of the war between a state and a terrorist organization: It is a war of mutual attrition, not one of knock-outs.
On January 6, Dagan handed over his job to Tamir Pardo. Over the past several weeks, Dagan has accompanied Pardo, who has 30 years’ experience in the Mossad, to various Western capitals to introduce him to his counterparts. One trip abroad—to London, which publicly condemned Israel for using British passports in the Dubai operation—was of particular interest: It showed that whatever crisis there was between London and Jerusalem over Dubai is history.
In Dagan’s several farewell addresses, one comment has been controversial. Dagan said that Israel should go to war only if attacked or in immediate danger of survival. In other words, Dagan is sending a clear message that Israel should avoid initiating a military strike against Iran. According to sources in the prime minister’s office, Benjamin Netanyahu, who talks endlessly about Iran as an imminent existential threat to the Jewish state, doesn’t like hearing this from Dagan. But the former Mossad leader has always spoken his mind.
Now he is off to spend time in his studio, painting and sculpting, ready to be engraved in the public memory as the Mossad director who restored its reputation as an omnipotent intelligence agency with a reach that extends to the ends of the earth. It is an impression that, mythical or not, has contributed to Israel’s ability to deter its enemies. And that, after all, was Dagan’s aim all along.
Yossi Melman is a senior writer on strategic affairs, intelligence, and nuclear issues for Haaretz. He is writing a book about the history of the Israeli intelligence community and the Mossad’s wars in the last decade.
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